Friday, 28 May 2010

Kingston and lime trees

Now I'm alerted to lime trees (thanks to Oliver Rackham [see Rackham ‘label’ down the side] and my trip to Berlin) I'm seeing them everywhere, and as often as not they’re big. There’s a nice bunch at the back of the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury.

And then guess what. I'm walking down a few steps this morning to get to the riverside walk on my way to Kingston, where I was (though I didn’t then know it) to have a nice German bratwurst in the market square, and noticed the stainless steel information display erected like an odd-shaped sloping table at the water’s edge and for the first time ever went over to read it. A main item on it is lime trees, evidently a local feature worthy of remark. So are the great crested grebes on the river that I've mentioned before.

There was some good history, too, that I hadn’t been aware of. I knew Kingston had at one time been the seat of Saxon kings, probably because it had the first bridge as you went up the Thames (I presume the Roman London Bridge had fallen down). But it also had royal connections into the middle ages, with the Treaty of Kingston, 1217, about which I read ‘The Treaty of Kingston, describes peace negotiations commenced between John and Louis, dauphin of France immediately after the defeat of the latter's supporters at Lincoln in May 1217. Talks broke down before a further naval defeat at Sandwich persuaded Louis to agree terms at Lambeth’ (Wikipedia).

Also, Raven’s Ait, an island (old English eyot = ‘island’) in the river up by Surbiton, was the source of osiers for the basket makers. The baskets, I guess, would be for the salmon that were the main product of Kingston.

And finally Sopwith! Tommy Sopwith had a works in Kingston -- 6 fitters and carpenters and a boy -- designing flying boats for the First World War. The prototypes were tested on the Thames until the Thames Conservancy objected, so Sopwith moved down to Richmond where the Port of London Authority, who control the river up as far as it’s tidal, were more hospitable. Sopwith’s colleague in the venture was none other than Hawker, Harry Hawker, later of Hawker Siddeley.

So fancy living in a place like that. The sausage was nice, too.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Comic artists and English

Foyles had an event with two of the biggest US comics / cartoon / graphic novel artists, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. The theatre it was held in (Cochrane Theatre by Central St Martins School of Art) was full so they clearly have a huge clientele over here -- including son Jim who took me along with his animator mate, Alex Potts.

Chris Ware in particular had things to say about drawing comics that struck me as consistent with my understanding of writing as they it be occurring in school English.

Kids want to draw/write fiction with exotic characters but can’t because they haven’t enough experience. Turn them therefore to their own real lives, and even away from fiction. An account of a gym lesson, according to Ware, could be far more exciting than anything from what we usually think of as imagination (and, I would add, would involve as much real imagination). This is what Harold Rosen and those who thought like him at Walworth School and elsewhere were onto in the mid-fifties, and it’s consistent with the advice and practice of, say, Ted Hughes.

As for process, if I got it right, neither is in favour of sketchbooks and rough versions (for writers that would be notebooks and drafts). For Clowes going out every day to sketch when he was learning to draw was a drag and brought no pleasure; similarly doing his strips in rough to work out the ideas. Both felt the final version lacked energy and drawing it was a chore, so they now go straight to the final paper (they specified the brand, size and gauge!). The experience is 100 per cent pleasure when you don’t know what’s going to happen two pages ahead. In English at certain times the orthodoxy drafts and revision and may still be. James Britton expressed the same objection to it as Clowes and Ware, and emphasised the value of what he called ‘shaping at the point of utterance’ (‘utterance’, obviously, being used to include written ‘speech’.)

Drawing/composition should above all be a process of discovery.

Ignore thoughts of your audience. You know in general the sort of people you’d like to read your stuff; beyond that just make sure it’s intelligible. The transaction is between you, your stuff and your medium, so concentrate on that.

Ignore form, don’t try to develop a distinctive style. Focus on the content and draw/write it whatever way you do.

When I have my own school I'll have these guys in to teach drawing comics (as Jim in fact does now), and I’d get the kids to speculate about the implications for writing.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Lopped planes and the trees of Berlin

Pity I didn’t have my camera when out today. The planes that I presume were lopped first are sprouting. The one at the back of my flats, though, still has no life and has been colonised today by a bunch of rooks and some magpies. There goes the neighbourhood. Their noise suggests a dispute but I can’t see what about.

I've been in Berlin since my last post and there I saw more lime trees than ever before. The ones you see here are usually small and ornamental, and are found in towns on roadsides and in parks, like the ones along the Severn in Shrewsbury. According to Oliver Rackham, however, it was once one of the dominant trees of Britain, and the tallest.

I didn’t warm to the trees in Berlin. Here we’re good at trees in parks and parkland but in Germany you have the feeling that the forest is only provisionally and partially cleared and would be back if they all went on holiday for a couple of months at the same time. It’s as if they fell enough trees to stick a building up and never get round to removing the rest, so you see a toddlers’ playground in front of an apartment block overhung by giant trees that cause a permanent gloom for the kids to play in. And whereas English oaks tend to be light and luminous -- sometimes almost backlit -- the trees amongst the Berlin blocks are of some dark and dull species, somewhere between sycamore and the maples I knew in Ottawa, maybe a European maple. It’s the Wald, that’s what it is, the Teutonic forest that swallowed up Varo’s legions so they could be massacred by Arminius (Hermann the German); and it’s overlaid only superficially by Berlin.

Limes are lighter but even they don’t relieve the gloom. And in the parks the grass is uncut and scrappy, as in Mexican parks. Berlin strikes me like a colonists’ city: they’ve moved in recently and imposed their massive buildings and infrastructure on a landscape they’ve never paused to domesticate and convert from nature to culture.

Which I suppose is why Berlin is exciting in a way no English city could ever be. I loved it. But that’s another story, or posting.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Children of other lands

Hmm, I seem to be blogging again. I think I can keep it up provided it doesn’t become too much of a commitment -- like shaping my periods into elegant prosodies, checking my (deteriorating) spelling (I’m constantly, almost predictably, writing the homophone instead of the word I mean -- what’s that a sign on?) -- in short, if it doesn’t take too long. More of a jotter.

Anyway, no more next week. Off to investigate Berlin.

Deep Sussex yesterday, for an outdoor party. Old house from which the land (the Weald) falls away on two sides, down, eventually, in the far distance, to dense oak woodland and then, at the horizon, rises into the lovely outline of the South Downs. Oak country, hazel hedges, but terrific horse chestnuts -- great-rooted blossomers, tha’ knows -- and also the odd ash, and I can confirm that the oak is out well before the ash, though oaks of one species are out before the other (I don’t know which is which: I understand Britain has two native species).

I knew some but not all of the people. One young man who I had known for a few years from earlier visits and who had been an IT person doing one-off contract jobs was now writing prestigious reviews of children’s books -- of which he had piles of review copies, some of which he read to an eager audience of children there, age 6 and under. Brilliant with kids, lovely to watch.

One person was married to a Catalan man; they’ve had two children in Barcelona. She and the children were at the party and were delightful. She told us they can go to school at three, free, and that it’s quite formal -- they sit at desks -- but that the teachers, like Spanish people generally with children, are kind.

Which makes me ask, what makes the Spanish (and Italians, I've noticed) particularly kind to and delighted with children? Is it Catholicism? Is that they’ve industrialised less completely and more recently than the British? And have they always been that way because the story I keep reading is that until, say, Rousseau Europeans were pretty indifferent and callous when it came to children, regarding them rather as chattels and investments. I imagine that story’s simply wrong, or true only in certain parts of certain societies. Enlightenment welcome on this.

Also present were a lady who’d come to London from Russia 20-plus years ago and her son, now taking A levels in a London comprehensive. His take on school was interesting. He’d started out at at private school and had moved to the comp in year 9, where he’d found the standard much higher. His teachers on the whole have been brilliant -- dedicated, expert, enthusiastic. (For the record it’s Queen’s Park Community School.) But he was glad he’d escaped SMILE -- a popular junior maths programme -- by attending a traditional private school; he reckons if he’d done SMILE he’d now be having great difficulty with his A level maths.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

They don't read the papers

It’s said ‘this generation’, ‘young people’ etc don’t read the papers but get all their information from the internet. Don’t we agree that if that’s true, it’s a pity?

I don’t think kids/young adults, many of them (let alone older adults), know what papers are, what they do, how they’re used.

So in my school every day will start in the tutor group/home room/whatever with reading and discussing the papers. They’ll all be available in each room in sufficient copies. (The publishers will supply them free in hope of future custom.) The teachers will get in an hour early to review them. (If necessary the kids will come in an hour later. Or be in some sort of study room when they arrive.)

The proceedings around the day’s papers will be a mixture of browsing and directed inquiry. The students will get to know what to expect from each paper. They’ll do a lot of comparison of treatments of the same story, but will also come to appreciate the best writers, best cartoonists, best sports pages, best tv coverage. And they’ll learn what goes on on the financial pages.

Seems rather obvious, doesn’t it. Why isn’t it done? probably because it isn’t a ‘subject’.

Education and forming the brain?

A chap on the Today programme just now was claiming that no one becomes a top sportsman/woman without at least ten years of practice, which doesn’t just develop the body but changes the brain. Pretty well anyone’s brain and body, moreover, can get there with enough practice.

We know about the brain changing with learning from London taxi-drivers and the archaeologist I heard who’d taken singing lessons for a month (or perhaps it was a year) and had his brain scanned before and after -- sure enough one part had grown, and I imagine the change was in the structure too, what was connected to what, how many connections each bit had. Sorry to be so technical.

Dr Johnson said that education in childhood should be determined and relentless because that is when the brain is particularly retentive so that knowledge gained then lasts for life.

So I wonder: is there enough emphasis in contemporary ideas of education on the sheer volume of repetition and application needed? is education arduous enough? is there enough practice to decisively reconfigure the brain?

Ian Pringle and Aviva Freedman in the 1980s did a study of students' writing at different ages in a Canadian school board and concluded that by the age of ten children should be writing many pages of continuous text every week. It seems to me that most children are well capable of that if properly taught from the start, and that it should be happening.

Similarly, it’s necessary to read a certain quantity of poems in a school year. No one has attempted, as far as I know, to say how many but I'm sure it’s far more that most kids do have the chance of reading. Books likewise.

Classrooms cursed by too much variety of activity, not enough sheer application and persistence? too low a tolerance of the possibility of boredom?

Or am I just getting reactionary in my old age?

Alice Oswald

Someone, might have been Carol Ann Duffy, wrote the other day that the best poets writing in Britain are Don Patterson and Alice Oswald. There are lots of poets I don’t know but of those I do I agree those two are the best, though I’ve only just got to Oswald.

I’d knew of her Dart, about the River Dart in Devon, and had read bits in reviews and bookshops, but I’ve been reading A Sleepwalk on the Severn, about the moon and the Severn Estuary -- tidal of course, the mud uncovered half the time and under twenty foot of water for the rest. Bits are spoken by a chorus, the moon, the wind and the sleepwalking poet who takes notes.

Though it’s not always easy to see what is being literally ‘meant’, reading the Sleepwalk is intensely pleasurable. There’s a high density of phrases that pull me up sharply with their freshness: e.g. from the second and third stanzas of the whole thing:

Swans pitching your wings
In the reedy layby of a vacancy
Where the house of the sea
Can be set up quickly and taken down in an hour

All you flooded and stranded weeds whose workplace
Is both a barren mudsite and a speeded up garden....

And later, the moon rising above the mud:

She begins to climb
In her slimy death sheath
Very strong-willed and tugging
Tied to the earth

And I like the frequent use of colloquial language and contemporary ‘unpoetic’ references:

But it’s like searchlights out here
I keep being followed by a strip of light
I keep seeing the moon
Mother of all grasses

Will re-read. Looking forward to Dart.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

New poems from old East Germany

I rarely like the poems in the London Review of Books but the issue I'm up to in my pile, 25th March, has ‘Five Poems by Günter Eich translated by Michael Hofmann’. I've come across Eich before because some time in the early 1970s the journal Modern Poetry in Translation had an event at the Royal Festival Hall. I think that’s where my then wife and I saw the magical combination of Pablo Neruda, six-foot Chilean ambassador to Paris with native Andean nose and fine brown suit, who read his poems in Spanish, and Alastair Reid translating into his own fine verse in a rich, soft American voice. Perhaps as a result of that we bought the anthology published by Carcanet, Postwar German Poetry in Translation, translated by Michael Hamburger. I wish I still had it but it seems unobtainable, though I have since bought a volume by one of the poets represented, Peter Huchel, again translated by Hamburger. Günter Eich was in there too.

The volume was full of lovely stuff, some of which was well received by my 1st and 2nd year pupils (11-12) at Walworth School. Perhaps I'll put some in this blog later -- I have copies of the ones I typed out for them.

According to Hamburger, the general idea of this postwar German poetry was ‘minimalist’: after the horrors of the Nazis and the Second World War, rhetorical flights and elegant verse-turnings seemed out of place. The barest means sufficed: no similes, no ‘poetic’ vocabulary, no sentiment. The style of bureaucratic prose might be employed, as if it’s all that’s left to us, as sometimes (and for the first time?) in
The Waste Land (I think -- need to check this) and certainly in Auden-Spender-MacNeice (been re-reading the latter -- wonderful): e.g. Eich: There are times I know that God/ is most concerned with the fate of snails; or Whoever is on a reasonable footing with horror / can expect its coming with equanimity.

Here are a couple of the Hoffmann’s new Eichs -- I hope he’ll forgive me if I add his plug at the end:

The moors we wanted to hike have been drained.
Their turf has warmed our evenings.
The wind is full of black dust.
It scours the names off the gravestones
and etches this day into us.

End of August
The white bellies of dead fish
loom among duckweed and rushes.
Crows have wings to enable them to escape death.
There are times I know that God
is most concerned with the fate of snails.
He builds them houses. We are not His favourites.

At night, the bus taking the football team home
leaves a white trail of dust.
The moon shines in the willowherb,
in concert with the evening star.
How near you are, immortality – in the wings of bats,
in pairs of headlights
nosing down the hill.

Günter Eich (1907-72) was a poet, translator from Chinese and writer of radio plays. Angina Days, a selection of his poems translated by Michael Hofmann, is due in May from Princeton.

It’s on order. If it arrives in time I'll take it with me to Berlin later this month.

Monday, 3 May 2010

The trees in Surbiton

[The date on this should actually be 13 May 2010, though I started it nearly a fortnight ago.]

Spring is well advanced. The horse chestnuts are in full leaf and near-full bloom. If they’ve still got the disease they all showed last year (see Label horse chestnuts) there’s no sign of it now.

The oaks are outish. As for the saying about ‘If the oak is out before the ash, summer will but be a splash, If the ash is out before the oak, it’ll be a soak’ (or something more metrical), I don’t think I've seen a single ash tree in Surbiton.

As for the planes, which here are only where they’ve been planted -- and perhaps everywhere? is there such a thing as a wild plane in Britain? -- the general state is ...

[New text:] I wrote the above intending to go out and photograph planes when the weather brightened up. The place to see them is Maple Avenue, which despite its name is a fine avenue of planes. My intention was to insert photos of them, and then to contrast it with the following:

[Original text continues] The one I can see from the back of the flat, though, was lopped on 30th April. I wish I’d photographed it just before but you can see what it looks like now:

On 29th April the shoots that grew since last year’s lopping -- maybe 6 feet long and prolific -- were in visible buds that were beginning to open. I'm interested to see how long the tree takes this year to recover. It’s clear the operation does it no harm, and is entirely necessary for the amenity of the houses and probably for safety.

[New text resumed] Yesterday morning I finally made it down to Maple Avenue and this is what I found:

I'm sure there are other planes in Surbiton, perhaps unlopped, but I can’t think where. I suspect that all planes are under the management of the council who go round each year and do the lot.

Anyway, original text from now on:

Why am I suddenly doing this nature recording? I've been reading Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne from the later 18th century. White has earned the huge respect of modern naturalists for his innovatingly thorough and intelligent observation and recording -- a truly Enlightenment enterprise -- except in one respect: when he saw a rare or interesting bird and had his gear with him, he shot it. On those grounds he counts himself a ‘sportsman’. But in those days the bounty of Nature must have seemed inexhaustible.